Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Presidential hopefuls & the restaurant business

Everyone knows that Herman Cain honed his leadership style in the restaurant business, first at Burger King, then Godfather’s, and finally the National Restaurant Association. But his departure from the presidential campaign hasn’t left the industry without an associate in the race.

With the exceptions of Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, all of the major candidates have a connection of some sort. Here’s a quick review of those sometimes scandalous ties:

Mitt Romney: The biggest check ever signed by the private-equity pioneer was a $1 billion pay-out to Tom Monaghan for Domino’s Pizza, which Romney’s employer, Bain Capital, would own for a number of years. The company subsequently purchased a piece of such industry giants as Dunkin’ Donuts and Outback Steakhouse. Bain earned a significant return from Domino's and Dunkin' through their respective stock offerings.

Newt Gingrich: An early scandal for the former House Speaker centered on his second career as educator. The restaurant business caught a little mud in that flap, too.

The fiery polemicist was accused of taking sizeable contributions from lobbyists who allegedly wanted him to air the views of their clients to the business students he was instructing at the undergraduate level. News reports identified one of those contributors as the Employment Policies Institute, a group formed by S&A Restaurants alumnus Rick Berman in part to protect the interests of several major casual-dining chains.

According to the allegations, the EPI wanted Gingrich to present minimum-wage employers in an attractive light. The group never commented on the assertions, and Gingrich denied that he skewed his lectures to accommodate its interests. But one of the documents that came to light at the time included a note from Berman to Gingrich, thanking him for his help.

Jon Huntsman: His connection is on the supply side of the restaurant business. Huntsman’s father, Jon Sr., was the founder of a chemical company called Hunstman Corp., which invented the clamshell burger box. Its major customer: McDonald’s, which spec’d the new container for the Big Mac.

The elder Huntsman later founded a private equity firm, HuntsmanGay, whose investments include a stake in a company that sells Mama Rosa’s pizza through convenience stores. Mama Rosa’s also supplies pizzerias with dough balls and pizza crusts.
I’ve yet to find a connection between the restaurant industry and Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, though I first learned of him and some industry-aligned views from the then-director of the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association.

Similarly, there’s yet to be a direct tie revealed with Ron Paul, the libertarian candidate. But he does share the name of perhaps our industry’s best-known researcher.

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